Spike Lee’s recent Oldboy redux may have been a dud at the box office, but, like any remake, it was good for at least one thing: exposing viewers to the source material. The 2003 South Korean original is perhaps Park Chan-wook’s greatest work; at the very least, it’s his most celebrated.
But we can’t forget that Oldboy is part of Chan-wook’s thematically-linked “Vengeance Trilogy,” which began with 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. (It concluded with Sympathy for Lady Vengeance in 2005.) As part of their recent deal with Palisades Tartan, Kino Lorber are releasing the acclaimed first installment on Blu-ray.
In the film, Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun, Thirst), a deaf and mute man, has his life turned upside down when his sister’s kidney fails. With no donors available for a transplant, Ryu turns to black market to purchase an organ. He must pay for 10 million won and give up a kidney of his own in exchange for one that matches his sister’s blood type. Desperate, he agrees to the terms and fulfills his end of the bargain, only to wake up naked, broke and without a kidney.
Three weeks later, a donor is miraculously found – but now Ryu no longer has the money for the procedure. With only a week to get the cash together, desperate times call for desperate measures; he and his girlfriend, Yeong-mi (Bae Doona, The Host), devise a plan to kidnap the young daughter of Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho, The Host), a wealthy executive at the company from which Ryu was fired.
Briskly paced even at 129 minutes, all of the action outlined above takes place within the first act of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance – although it could be the plot of an entire film on its own. I won’t reveal any further plot points, in case you haven’t seen the movie. Let’s just say the movie continues down the dark path, but it does not unfold how you’d expect.
The first half of the film feels like it could be the set up for a pitch-black comedy, complete with bits of deadpan humor among the dark subject matter. But it later shifts dramatically, as the humor is subdued in favor of unrelenting intensity and emotion. The latter half of the film, which tells two parallel, interconnected stories, can get a tad confusing upon first viewing, but not so much that it impedes the experience.
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’s brilliance lies not only in Chan-wook’s direction, but also the equally-smart script, which he co-wrote with Lee Jae-sun, Lee Mu-yeong and Lee Yong-jong. Each character has a justifiable motive driving their actions, heinous as they may be, therefore eliciting the sympathy promised by the title. As a result, the lines between good and bad are blurred.
The Blu-ray arrives in commendable form, simply mesmerizing in high definition. The trilogy was previously released as a Blu-ray box set, and the standalone release of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance brings over most of the same special features – which is quite a lot. There’s a commentary by Chan-wook and actor Seung-wan Ryoo, which is worth reading the subtitles for how packed with information it is. Among the plethora of other bonus content, you will find interviews with cast and crew members and behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Although Oldboy receives the most praise, it could be argued that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is the best of the trilogy. No matter which side you’re on, it’s impossible to appreciate one without the other. If this Blu-ray is a sign of things to come from the Kino Lober/Palisades Tartan partnership – and I believe it is – fans of Asian horror have a lot to look forward to. I can’t wait to see how they handle of the other two installments in the Vengeance trilogy.